Consistency is key in email production.

When an email goes out with mistakes or rendering issues, it’s usually because there was some gap or missed step in the email production process. Those gaps and missed steps happen if you don’t have a consistent, repeatable workflow for producing emails.

When you do things differently every time you build an email or email marketing campaign, it’s nearly impossible for teams to see what’s been done, what needs to be done, and understand the expectations for how things should be done.

This causes you to misstep, complete processes incorrectly, or end up doing the same work twice.

Additionally, an inconsistent process also makes it difficult for team members to take initiative or solve problems on their own, since they don’t know what to do next or what other teams have already done.

An email production workflow solves these problems. Your email production workflow is your production manual for ensuring that your email marketing best practices are in place, and you never send an email with functionality errors, typos, or deliverability issues.

In short, building a consistent email production workflow makes your emails better and helps you ship email campaigns faster.

This is what you need to know to build an email production workflow.

What is an email production workflow?

The answer is actually rather simple:

An email production workflow is a choreographed series of steps that enable marketing teams to execute an email from concept to inbox.

This choreographed series of steps reduces team stress, enables cross-team collaboration, and increases the overall quality of your email presentation.

And all that reduces mistakes and enables you to quality control your email campaigns much more thoroughly.

There’s not much more to say about why you should establish an email production process.

There’s much more to say about how to establish an email production process.

But building an email production workflow isn’t an impossible task. In fact, we’re going to use our own email production workflow here at Rejoiner to show you how to build an email production workflow.

Use this email production process to streamline your email creation and supercharge your email production.

How to improve your email validation with an email production workflow

Here’s the high-level overview of how your email production workflow will look, once it’s established:

  1. Strategy and brief
  2. Content and copy creation
  3. Visual design
  4. Development and image optimization
  5. Engagement QA
  6. Stakeholder sign-off
  7. Rendering QA
  8. Inbox placement QA
  9. Final Scheduling and day-of verification

These are the big steps. As you most likely guessed, there are substeps in each of these stages.

This guide will detail those substeps and cover tools, which parts of your emails to check at each stage, and techniques to ensure that your emails come out looking amazing (and performing even better).

Strategy and brief

Before we dig into the specifics of giving a strategy brief, it’s important to understand the three levels of execution:

  1. Goal.
  2. Strategy.
  3. Tactics.

Your goal is what you hope will happen if your strategy and tactics are successful.

Your goal is determined by the needs of your business. So your goal should be established before you even start building your email campaign.

A goal is something like achieving a 2% click-through rate, getting a 20% open rate, or hitting a specific last-click revenue target.

There are a ton of resources out there for setting business goals. And goal-setting is outside the scope of this guide.

We’re going to start at the strategy level. But the goal should be in place before you start the email production process.

Now, your strategy is your overall plan for achieving your goal. Your strategy outlines what you’re going to do, at a high level.

And your tactics are the specific actions you take to complete the steps in your strategy. Your tactics are how you’re going to do all of the things outlined in your strategy.

When you put your strategy brief together, it’s important to stay at the strategy level.

First, your brief will take a ridiculously long time if you try to cover the entire tactical level. Also, it makes your life a LOT easier if you let your team work out most of the tactics.

Here’s a broad view of what you need to cover in your strategy brief:

  1. The goal. Let the team know what you want to accomplish and outline the conditions for success. You’re working with email. Often, choosing an email marketing metric that you want to increase helps add specificity for your team.
  2. Who the email campaign is for. We’ve covered this part in our email marketing strategy guide. But the short version is that sending every email campaign to your entire list is not a good tactic.

    It’s important to specifically identify the customers you’re going to target with your email campaign. That way you send emails that your customers actually want to receive.
  3. What type of email campaign you’re going to send. There’s no such thing as a “do everything email.” Every email campaign has a specific purpose. And it’s important that the type of email campaign you send matches your goal.

There are plenty of creative brief templates and ways to organize your email creation brief. Use whatever format works best for you. Just make sure that your brief delivers all the information your team needs.

Once the brief is done, it’s time to let the team get to work.

Content creation and copywriting

This is the stage where you decide what your email is going to say, produce most of the text, and establish a tentative layout. These are the elements that should be completed at this stage:

  1. Sending email address
  2. Subject line
  3. Preheader
  4. Headlines
  5. Body copy
  6. Preliminary body content
  7. Footer boilerplate text

Some of these things might seem inconsequential. But everything in your email matters, for one reason or another.

Sending email address

The sending email address can actually affect your email open rates. The sending email address should represent who the customer would expect to receive that type of email from.

Sending all your emails from sales@yourcompany.com isn’t ideal. Customers do look at the sending email address. And a mismatch between the sending email address and the purpose of the email can make your emails seem spammy, which lowers deliverability rates and open rates.

Also, certain emails should always be sent from a monitored inbox, so customers can reply to the email if they need help or information.

Replying to an email is one of the easiest ways for customers to contact your company. So make sure customers can use the “reply” button to get in touch with you. At worst, your customer service will be excellent. At best, you’ll get additional sales.

Subject line

Many people say that the subject line is the most important part of an email because it’s what gets people to open the email.

The subject line is important. But just because a customer opens the email doesn’t mean they’re going to be happy with the email content or click on anything.

Here at Rejoiner, we take the approach that the subject line and the email content are equally important. The subject line should accurately reflect what’s in the email. That way, people get what they expect when they open your emails.

Avoid resorting to gimmicks or cheap tricks to raise open rates. That drives conversion rates down.

It might be tempting to turn to gimmicks because writing good subject lines is tricky. But there are some subject line fundamentals—like personalization and curiosity—that you can use to improve your open rates.

Also, it’s a good idea to look at your best subject lines from previous emails. Also, write multiple subject lines and use A/B testing to identify the best subject line.

Preheader

The preheader is also sometimes called preview text. It’s the snippet of text that the recipient sees in the inbox before they open the email.

Some email marketers neglect the preheader. Your preheader text is an amazing opportunity to get people to open your emails.

Avoid leaving the preheader text blank or using auto-generated preheader text. Take some time to write compelling preheader text that entices customers to open your emails.

Headlines

Yes, your emails should have headlines. How many headlines will depend on what type of email you’re sending.

But, no matter what, your headlines should do two things:

  1. Enable customers to quickly scan the email and determine if they want to read the body copy.
  2. Encourage customers to keep reading the email.

Use your headlines to give information about what’s in the section below the headline and inspire curiosity about what’s in the next section.

That might sound daunting. But there’s good news: you can use A/B testing to optimize the headlines in your emails, too. The metric that you’ll most often use to test your headlines is conversion rate.

Body copy

There’s a lot that we could write about body copy. But the most important thing to understand about body copy is this:

Your body copy should ALWAYS be as short as possible. That doesn’t mean there’s a word limit or anything. But, if you can say the same thing with fewer words, say it with fewer words.

There’s no benefit to adding words that you don’t need. Enough said.

Preliminary body content

We call this “preliminary body content” because you’re establishing what you want in the email. This includes images, links, embedded videos, animations, and anything else that you want.

All that is preliminary because you may have to make some changes when you start doing the visual design and development. Occasionally, you may have to add or remove body content based on the visual and coding limitations of email.

But, when you get to the visual design and development stages, your preliminary body content is your plan. That plan may just require some tweaks.

Footer boilerplate text

This is just all the required footer text, like the required “unsubscribe” links and contact information. The key here is to use boilerplate text.

You should definitely have a template for this. Some parts of your footer text are legally required (like the unsubscribe link). Some parts of your footer text make your emails a better experience for your customers.

Either way, using a footer template eliminates the possibility that you’ll leave out any required footer elements. It also saves you tons of time, since you can basically copy and paste your footer.

To wrap up this stage of email production, it’s important to understand that you won’t have anything approximating a finished product at this point. But, you should have everything you need to start building the visual design.

Visual design

The visual design phase is where you fire up Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch, or whatever visual creation tools your team uses.

You need to complete three things at this stage:

  1. Choose a visual theme
  2. Create images
  3. Establish a layout

Choosing a visual theme is the trickiest part. Your visual theme needs to take advantage of coloring and layout to direct attention to your call to action. The layout and color scheme can affect click-through rates. So take advantage of these elements to make your emails perform better. 

Image creation is pretty straightforward. Your designer knows what type of images work best and how to produce even the small graphics that you need to get the visuals you need.

But, if there are relevant products, it’s a good idea to include images of those products in the email.

If it’s an email that doesn’t have product images, make sure that the visuals match the content of the email and the personality of your brand.

Also, if you have emails that have performed remarkably well, consider using those emails to develop email templates. That way you can use your highest-performing emails as a baseline—if not a scaffold—for building your future emails.

Lastly, plan where you’re going to put all the visual elements and text. The most effective way to do all this is to create the visual elements, then put them in an email design mockup. Tweak the visual mockup until you have everything the way you like it.

Email development and image optimization

This is the coding part, where you turn your body content, copy, and visual design into a live email.

Everything in your visual design may not be possible. Your email developers will know what you can do with email. And they can help you push the limits of email.

Coding an email can be challenging because you have to create a single layout that works for three categories of mail clients:

  • Mobile
  • Browser
  • Outlook desktop

Each category has multiple mail clients. And each mail client has different HTML email rendering issues you must know about to create a perfect email. Additionally, the operating system can cause various rendering issues for mobile and Outlook desktop mail clients.

To overcome these difficulties, you must find what HTML and CSS works in all mail clients and build from there.

Here at Rejoiner, we build emails using the fewest lines of code as possible for a couple of reasons:

  1. Too much HTML will increase the file size of the email. This makes the email load slowly. And some mail clients will cut the email and not display it all.
  2. Too much code also makes the email hard to maintain. We build emails using a fluid layout with a fixed width warper for Outlook desktop mail clients. This way the email works in all mail clients and adapts to the screen size of the device. We only use media queries to enhance the look of the email for mail clients that support media queries.

Images are also important. The .png format is best for small images or images with a few colors because the images look sharp and the size is small. Use TinyPNG to optimize your .png images.

Otherwise, it’s best to use retina images. Otherwise, the images look blurry on screens with a high pixel density.

The .jpg format works best for larger images. Use Kraken.io or Optimizilla to optimize your .jpg images.

Only use the .gif format for animated images. But keep in mind that .gif images don’t work in the Outlook desktop mail client. Outlook only shows the first frame of a .gif. Use Outlook if clauses to hide the .gif and display a different image. Optimize your .gif images with GifGifs.com

The goal is to strike a good balance between email quality and file size. That way the user experience is as good as possible in terms of performance (how fast the email loads and displays) and how good the email looks.

Engagement QA

The engagement QA (quality assurance) stage is simple in concept. But it can be complex in execution.

The first thing to check in this part of the process is to make sure that there are no mistakes in your email. You first need to get rid of any typos and visual mistakes.

There are tools to help you with this. However, it’s unwise to rely entirely on the tools. You still need to put a few sets of eyes on your emails and verify that the tools caught everything.

These tools are helpful for finding grammar and spelling mistakes:

But avoid blindly accepting every suggestion these programs make.

Algorithms are bad at understanding language. And simply applying every suggestion from a grammar checker will make your writing nonsensical.

Grammar checkers can help you identify areas that need scrutiny. But the best way to spot grammar errors, typos, and visual issues is to change the media that you’re reading on.

If you’ve been working on the email on a laptop or desktop, switch to a phone or print it out.

Your brain fills in information that it believes you’ve already seen. You’ll often overlook mistakes if you repeatedly look at something that looks the same. Changing the format makes things look different, so you can view your email critically.

However, you also need to ensure that your email displays correctly on both desktop and mobile displays. So you should at least view your email on a standard screen and a phone screen, anyway.

Additionally, you need to make sure that everything in the email works properly. Click on all every single link in your email to weed out broken or incorrect links. Make sure any animations or videos play the way they should.

Also, click around in the email and make sure there’s nothing in the email that can be clicked that shouldn’t be clickable.

The more people that check your emails for mistakes, the better. Get the whole team involved with this step. Have everybody comb through the email. In short, make sure your email looks and works perfectly.

Stakeholder sign-off

It might seem odd that stakeholders sign off on the email before you do the rendering and inbox placement QA. But the remaining QA steps are transparent to the stakeholders.

The rendering and inbox placement QA processes ensure that the email looks perfect on all your subscribers’ devices and that it actually reaches the inbox.

Going through the rendering and inbox placement QA first would just delay the stakeholder sign-off. And, if you change anything based on input from stakeholders, you’d have to do the rendering and inbox placement QA over again.

The stakeholders want to approve the design and copy decisions. All the other QA is simply ensuring that your subscribers see what the stakeholders approved. So get the approval before you finalize everything.

Rendering QA

Rendering QA is where the meat of your email validation really starts. Everything up to this point has been about making sure that you have an email that looks great, works as intended, and that will achieve your email marketing goals.

These last three steps—rendering QA, inbox placement QA, and final verification are the core steps in ensuring your email actually shows up in subscriber inboxes and displays correctly on everyone’s device.

The core steps start with the rendering QA.

There are two layers to the rendering QA:

  1. Rendering verification
  2. Seed list testing

There are a nearly unlimited number of potential email client and device combinations. And your emails must display correctly in all of them. The rendering verification is the most efficient way to check your emails in as many email client and device combinations as possible.

Fortunately, there are tools that give you rendering previews in all the different device and email client combinations. These are the ones that we like best:

  1. Litmus
  2. Email on Acid

These tools are amazing for doing an initial QA review of your email to make sure that there are no glaring rendering errors.

The next step is to run a seed list test.

A seed list is a list of email addresses that you use for testing emails before you send them to your subscribers. Your seed list should be a representative cross-section of your full subscriber list. And you and your team need access to all the email addresses on your seed list.

As a simplified example, if your entire subscriber list is Gmail and MSN email addresses, your seed list should be a few Gmail and MSN emails. You likely have a lot more inbox providers than that in your email list. But the goal is to ensure that you have test emails in your seed list for all the inbox providers in your live email list.

The seed list test proves that your emails display correctly (or discover display issues that weren’t detected before) in the environment in which your subscribers will read them by sending live emails to active inboxes.

Then you and your team can open your emails and view them the same way a subscriber would. This will catch any rendering issues that the rendering tools may have missed.

Seed list testing is also a key part of the next QA stage.

Inbox placement QA

It doesn’t matter how beautiful and well-designed your email is if it goes to the spam folder. Your inbox placement QA process ensures that your emails land in the inbox.

Your seed list test will tell you where your emails are going, without endangering your email sender reputation. If they hit the inbox, great!

If your emails show up in the Gmail promotions tab, that’s still the inbox. Gmail just identified your email as a marketing email and sorted it appropriately.

Yes, we’d love for our emails to display in the primary inbox tab. And there are ways to optimize your emails to improve your chances of escaping the Gmail promotions tab. But showing up in the promotions tab isn’t the end of the world.

What you desperately want to avoid is having your emails go to the spam folder. If your emails are being marked as spam, that means that you’ve got email deliverability issues.

There are three potential sources of email deliverability issues:

  1. Email authentication infrastructure.
    Your emails will usually end up in the spam folder if your email authentication protocols (SPF, DKIM, DMARC) are incorrectly configured or not set up at all.

    Email servers can’t verify whether or not your emails are legitimate without the authentication protocols. Most email servers will automatically dump your emails in the spam folder or block them altogether if your email authentication standards aren’t set up correctly. 
  2. Domain or IP reputation.
    Your IP address and domain reputation are determined by how new your email sending domain or IP address is and what sort of emails you’ve sent from that domain or IP address.

    If you have a brand new sending IP address, you’ll get deliverability issues if you immediately start sending a ton of emails. Incoming email servers don’t trust new email IP addresses. Your emails will usually get flagged as spam if you don’t warm up a new IP address.

    On the other hand, if you have a seasoned domain or IP address, but you’ve sent spammy emails from it in the past, it will usually have a bad sending reputation. So any new emails that you send from that IP address will also often end up in the spam folder.

    There are ways to improve your domain reputation. But it’s a gradual process.

    If you haven’t done it yet, you should definitely set up Google Postmaster Tools to monitor your domain reputation and get some feedback on what’s affecting your email deliverability.

    Google Postmaster Tools are free. And you can easily use them in conjunction with other domain reputation monitoring and analytics tools.

    But the bottom line is if your sending IP address has a bad reputation, you’ll most likely get email deliverability problems. And that will cause your email marketing metrics to fall.
  3. Subscriber list quality.
    If your email list is full of blacklisted emails, spam traps, invalid email addresses, and incorrect email addresses, you’re going to have a bad time.

    You must quality control any email list before you send emails. Otherwise, you’ll get a lot of hard and soft bounces, unsubscribes, and spam complaints. All of these will cause you deliverability issues in the future because they damage your email sending reputation.

    Quality controlling your email lists requires cleaning your existing email lists. Also, you should use filters like a double opt-in to keep bad email addresses off your lists in the first place.

The key takeaway here is that you MUST perform an inbox placement QA check. The more of your emails that get sent to the spam folder, the more likely it is that your future emails will get flagged as spam or blocked altogether.

The trouble with the seed test is that it will only reveal whether or not your emails are dropping into the spam folder. Your seed list test won’t tell you why your email was marked as spam.

If your seed list test finds that your emails aren’t inboxing properly, use email validation tools to analyze your emails and find out what’s causing your email deliverability issues:

  1. G-Lock email validation software
  2. 250OK email validation
  3. Google Postmaster Tools

Fixing email deliverability problems is outside the scope of this guide. But this is an excellent email deliverability guide to help you correct issues that you find during the inbox placement QA.

Configuring your email authentication standards and cleaning your email lists will solve a lot of inboxing problems, though. So those are worth trying first.

Once you’ve corrected any deliverability issues, run another seed list test to ensure that the problems are truly gone.

Now that you’re confident that your email looks how you want and will reach the inbox, it’s time to wait for sending day.

Final Scheduling and day-of verification

The last step is to determine when you’ll send your new campaign and schedule it or set up a trigger for the email to send.

A scheduled email automatically sends on a certain date. Holiday emails and annual event emails are scheduled emails. Triggered emails send whenever a customer takes a key action like adding items to their cart, then abandoning that cart.

Regardless of which type of email you send, it’s important to verify the send date or check to make sure the trigger works as intended before you call the email campaign ready.

It’s also wise to send a few final test emails to members of your team for them to perform one final rendering and function check to really be sure that your email looks and functions the way you want.

Email rendering and deliverability quality control

Hitting the send button

This process might feel a bit overkill. You might wonder if you need to go through this entire process for every email you send, even if it’s a simple newsletter or announcement email.

The answer is yes. No matter how trivial it seems, you never want to send an email that has problems.

At best, it’s a bad end-user experience to get a poorly constructed email from your business. At worst, you could damage your email sending reputation, and end up with deliverability issues when you send future emails.

And, even though this process might seem overkill for a small email, you’ll find that your team produces even simple emails faster and with fewer mistakes if you follow a consistent process for every single email.

About Rejoiner

Rejoiner gives you e-commerce marketing automation with a team of e-commerce marketing experts that handle your email production workflow for you and integrate your email marketing with all your other automated marketing channels.

Looking for a team to take over your email production workflow? Book a call now.

Author       
Mike Arsenault
Mike Arsenault is the Founder & CEO of Rejoiner. He works with 350+ online retail & eCommerce companies like Hydroflask, Footjoy, GUESS, and Big Chill to help them grow faster using lifecycle email. He also once lived aboard a 36' sailboat in Boston.